Chilean President Sebastian Pinera said Wednesday he hopes 33 miners trapped nearly a half-mile underground will be home by Christmas — a lengthy rescue timeline that doesn't square with experts' shorter estimates but could reflect a political strategy aimed at avoiding unmet expectations.
The mine disaster, which began with an underground collapse Aug. 5 and captured the world's attention when the men were found alive 17 days later, presents both huge opportunities and risks for the billionaire-turned-politician who took office earlier this year.
"Pinera is gambling his presidency on this accident," said Patricio Navia, a professor of Latin American studies at New York University. "Of course, he has to get them out now. It would be impossible for him to govern if the rescue operation fails."
Officials at all levels, from the mining minister to Pinera, have vigorously rejected shorter rescue timelines. But when discussing their own projections, they add that they also are "exploring other options," an apparent acknowledgment it could happen faster than they are saying.
In his speech Wednesday, Pinera said there is no chance the miners will be freed by Chile's independence day celebrations, which begin Sept. 18, but added that the government is doing all it can "so we can celebrate Christmas and New Year's" with them.
While no one claims the men could be rescued in weeks, the government's timeline is extremely conservative — twice as long as it should take, experts say.
"Four months? Never," Eduardo Hurtado, a geologist on the team that drilled the first bore hole to make contact with the miners, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "If there are no major mechanical problems, this can be done in two months, three at the most."
The deep-drilling team's recent experience carving a total of three bore holes to communicate with and deliver food to the miners will give it a head start, while any mechanical problems that come up with the drills can probably be solved in six hours or less, Hurtado said. The government has said it's working 24 hours a day.
Pinera's handling of the rescue timeline is in step with his emerging form of governance: Manage expectations, stay in front of the issues — and cameras — and control the message.
Pinera's team even managed the stunning news that the miners had been found alive Aug. 22.
After rescuers first made contact with the miners, word quickly spread to their waiting families, who were seen on live television cheering, crying and hugging each other. Then a mining ministry official appeared, telling them it wasn't official — they would have to wait for confirmation. Minutes went by until Pinera arrived from the capital to personally read the miners' thrilling note before the cameras: "We are all well in the shelter, the 33."
Constanza Cea, a top Pinera adviser, said there are no political motives behind the government's rescue estimates.
"We haven't promised any particular date in consideration of the effect that this could have on the miners and their families," Cea said. "There has been no manipulation of dates."
Thus far, Chileans appear to agree with Pinera's handling of the mining catastrophe.
Fifty-six percent of Chileans approved of Pinera's government in August, according to an Adimark poll released Wednesday, up from 46 percent in July. The approval rating jumped to 65 percent when the independent polling company only took into account those interviews done after the miners were discovered to be alive. Pollsters interviewed 1,315 Chileans by phone. The margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.
If officials estimate four months for the rescue and it only takes two, it's a major win for a government that has already been criticized for apparent lax safety regulations in mines. Pinera fired top mine regulators and launched a commission to investigate the Aug. 5 collapse.
Conversely, if the government estimated a two-month timeframe and it took longer, it could be a blow to Pinera's image of efficiency, a central pillar of his campaign last year.
Workers with Chile's state-owned Codelco mining company began heavy drilling Tuesday, and the Strata 950 drill they are using clearly has the capacity to do the job faster.
The drill, owned by South African engineering company Murray & Roberts, is capable of advancing about 100 feet (30 meters) a day during the drilling of an initial "pilot" hole, Murray & Roberts spokesman Eduard Jardim told the AP in an e-mail.
When it is time to widen the pilot hole, the drill will slow down to about 33 to 50 feet (10 to 15 meters) a day, Jardim said.
According to those estimates, it would take from about 10 weeks to three months to get the miners out, not taking into account any possible technical problems.
A potentially faster method is "Plan B," which calls for using a huge Schramm T-130 drill to enlarge one of the three bore holes that already have been opened.
First the hole would have to be widened from about 6 inches to 12 inches (15 to 30 centimeters), a two-week process. A second round of drilling could enlarge it to more than 28 inches (70 centimeters) needed to pull the miners out one by one.
Walter Herrera, a top official at Geotec, the Chilean company providing the Schramm T-130, told reporters that the work could be done in two months, a timeline later rejected by Mining Minister Laurence Golborne.
On Tuesday, a Geotec official told the AP that the Chilean government had asked the company not to make statements to the news media, and referred queries to the mining ministry.
Even the geologists who have offered faster rescue timelines acknowledge that technical problems with either drill could slow the process: breaking drill bits, hitting water, running into areas of extremely strong rock.
Indeed, La Tercera newspaper reported late Wednesday that the dtill had to temporarily stop because of technical problems related to the walls of the hole it's carving. The problems began about 66 feet (20 meters) down and would likely sideline the drill for at least a few hours, the paper said.
"In reality, nobody can say exactly how long it will take," said Walter Veliz Araya, the geologist in charge of drilling the first three bore holes. "As the drilling proceeds, they'll be better able to estimate."